The Truth About Lithium-ion Battery Fires

lithium-ion battery fire

Why the NTSB is asking for stronger rules

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have transformed portable electronics. They are widely used for a variety of products including smartphones, tablets, small cameras, laptops, e-cigarettes and vapes and electric vehicles.  When these batteries malfunction, we are at risk for burns and serious injuries. On June 8, 2020, The National Transportation Safety Board recommended stronger rules to stop some lithium-ion batteries from being taken on international flights.

What kinds of products use lithium-ion batteries?

We blogged about the chemicals used in batteries and the resources required here. But we didn’t cover the pervasive use of lithium-ion batteries nor the inherent dangers.

  • Cameras
  • GPS devices
  • Laptops and tablets
  • Watches and smartwatches
  • Electric watches
  • Cordless phones
  • Handheld gaming devices
  • Bluetooth speakers
  • Wireless headphones
  • Portable power packs
  • E-cigarettes
  • Hoverboards
  • Smartphones
  • Wireless mouse
  • Solar power storage
  • Electric vehicles

Why do lithium-ion batteries catch fire?

Li-ion batteries, short for lithium-ion, charge every manner of portable electronics. They have grown in popularity because they are lighter and offer more power for devices with high power requirements. The downside is that they create considerable heat while recharging, which can lead to fires. If not properly vented and protected, the heat from one charging li-ion battery can set off a chain reaction with other batteries. The electrolyte inside a li-ion battery is volatile and flammable. A catastrophic failure due to overheating or short-circuiting, called a thermal runaway, can drive the temperatures even higher. All lithium-ion batteries house chemical reactions and therefore the potential to swell, heat up, and eventually ignite. Tests show exploding batteries shooting off red-hot pieces in all directions.  

A brief history of lithium-ion battery failures?

A well-known example of a lithium-ion battery hazard is the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone recall in 2016. Further, nearly half a million hoverboards of various brands experienced recalls in 2016 and 2017 due to li-ion batteries and chargers catching fire or overheating. Last June, Apple recalled 432,000 previous-generation 15.4-inch MacBook Pro laptops and offered consumers a free replacement battery. This followed the FAA’s refusal to allow the devices on any flight.

No battery fires inflight – yet

According to the FAA’s Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety, a fire has never spread on a flight due to a faulty battery. However, batteries cause flight disruptions somewhat regularly. There have been at least 265 air or airport incidents involving lithium batteries since 1991. While most smoking gadgets can be placed in “containment bags,” passenger flights as recently as May 2019 have had to land early because of “a dangerous evolution of heat.”

On June 8, 2020, The National Transportation Safety Board recommended stronger rules to stop the carrying of some lithium-ion batteries on airplanes. The recommendation comes after batteries were flown from Florida to Toronto by FedEx. The batteries erupted in flames on the ground, destroying a delivery truck. The NTSB said that had the batteries caught fire while in the air, they could have caused the plane to crash. So, the agency is seeking changes in international regulations to ban the transport of prototype or low-production batteries without safety tests. 

Marine industry changes are slow in coming

Sweeping reforms are slow in lowering the risk that li-ion batteries pose to seagoing vessels. In 2017, the U.S. Navy imposed restrictions including a ban on all vaping devices from Navy vessels after the devices sparked numerous fires. While the NTSB and Coast Guard don’t expect an official report on the deadly Conception dive boat fire for another year, one intense area of focus has been li-ion batteries. The Coast Guard issued a warning nine days after the 2019 fire but required changes are still to come. The warning urged owners of passenger vessels and their crews “to reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of li-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.”

The challenge is that boats such as Conception were built before the modern world of digital cameras, cellphones, laptops, tablets. In the case of Conception, dive gear, including underwater cameras, lights and scooters, needs nightly charging.

lithium-ion battery swelling

Can Lithium-ion batteries catch fire when not in use?

Yes. We have seen recycling storage of throw-away lithium-ion batteries catch fire. We are talking units turned off, not in use and awaiting proper disposal. Safety concerns persist for lithium-ion battery storage. The electrodes can decompose at elevated temperatures and under overcharging or discharging conditions. During the end-of-life stage of any modern electronic device, poor handling, storage, and disposal could increase the risk of fire or poisoning. 

According to GreenCitizen, “over 95% of the exploded or bulging batteries that we get are from Apple products that use the Lithium Polymer (LiPo) style batteries.” They recommend storing battery packs in a fire-proof and explosion-proof battery bag such as LiPo Safe Bag from COLCASE. It has a fire-retardant coating outside and is made from fire retardant fiberglass nylon inside.

What should you watch out for?

A swollen lithium-ion battery may catch fire or explode. Some first-generation Apple Watch users have seen their battery swell.  Swollen batteries occur when its cells oxidize, which in turn releases toxic gasses. It could also produce a sweet smell, which are lithium fumes. Under no circumstances should you use this battery.

Heat is a true enemy to your battery. High temperatures are known to reduce a battery’s lifespan over time. In extreme cases, an overheated battery could explode. Keep your phone out of strong sun, away from windowsills and off the dashboard of your car to prevent overheating. Likewise, be sure to remove the plastic protective film that comes with new phones and portable devices as those prevent proper cooling. If you use a screen protector, select a glass screen protector instead of a plastic one for better cooling. 

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